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The air strikes in Balakot, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, by the Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter jets set in motion waves of jubilation in India and a deluge of anger and war cry in Pakistan. Launched in the early hours of 26 February, the ‘surgical strikes 2.0,’ as it has been characterized by the Indian media, came in less than two weeks after the Pulwama terror attacks in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Even as the two countries have made claims and counterclaims, in respect of causalities and the extent of damage, the Pakistan Government has convened an urgent meeting of the National Command Authority which is in control of its nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, there have been threatening statements issued by the officials that Pakistan would respond “at the time and place of its choosing” and bring up the issue at the United Nations and other global forums. A military official warned, “We will surprise you,” pointing to the situation that the response would include all areas including “diplomatic, political and military.”

After hours of airstrikes, India’s Foreign Secretary issued a statement justifying the Indian action. It says,

“In an intelligence led operation in the early hours of today, India struck the biggest training camp of JeM in Balakot. In this operation, a very large number of JeM terrorists, trainers, senior commanders and groups of jihadis who were being trained for fidayeen action were eliminated. This facility at Balakot was headed by MAULANA YOUSUF AZHAR (alias USTAD GHOURI), the brother-in-law of MASOOD AZHAR, Chief of JeM. The Government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to taking all necessary measures to fight the menace of terrorism. Hence this non-military preemptive action was specifically targeted at the JeM camp. The selection of the target was also conditioned by our desire to avoid civilian casualties. The facility is located in thick forest on a hilltop far away from any civilian presence. As the strike has taken place only a short while ago, we are awaiting further details” (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2019b).

He said that “Information regarding the location of training camps in Pakistan and PoJK has been provided to Pakistan from time to time. Pakistan, however, denies their existence. The existence of such massive training facilities capable of training hundreds of jihadis could not have functioned without the knowledge of Pakistan authorities.”  He added: “India has been repeatedly urging Pakistan to take action against the JeM to prevent jihadis from being trained and armed inside Pakistan. Pakistan has taken no concrete actions to dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism on its soil. Credible intelligence was received that JeM was attempting another suicide terror attack in various parts of the country, and the fidayeen jihadis were being trained for this purpose. In the face of imminent danger, a preemptive strike became absolutely necessary.” Foreign Secretary said that “Pakistan had made a solemn commitment in January 2004 not to allow its soil or territory under its control to be used for terrorism against India. We expect that Pakistan lives up to its public commitment and takes follow up actions to dismantle all JeM and other camps and hold the terrorists accountable for the actions. On 14 February 2019, a suicide terror attack was conducted by a Pak based terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad, leading to the martyrdom of 40 brave jawans of the CRPF. JeM has been active in Pakistan for the last two decades, and is led by MASOOD AZHAR with its headquarters in Bahawalpur. This organization, which is proscribed by the UN, has been responsible of a series of terrorist attacks including on the Indian Parliament in December 2001 and the Pathankot airbase in January 2016 (Ibid).

Foreign Secretary’s reference to “non-military preemptive action” does not make any sense if all other claims of India having undertaken an operation with specific targets are of any indication. Observers would argue that this official version might be necessary to defend the country internationally if Pakistan comes up with allegations of civilian causalities.

In fact, the Balakot airstrikes were not unexpected. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had warned a week ago that “perpetrators of Pulwama terror attack act will be punished” and that “they will have to pay a heavy price.” Stating that free hand has been given to the security forces to act, Modi “dared Pakistan not to live in illusion that it can destabilize India. Our neighbour which is already isolated by the global community is in a state of illusion, if it thinks that it can demoralize India with its dastardly acts and nefarious designs” (PMIndia 2019). A day before the airstrikes, Prime Minister Imran Khan responded to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comments and assured him that he would stand by his words that “if India provides Pakistan with ‘actionable intelligence’ regarding the February 14 attack” in Pulwama,  “we will immediately act.” On 23 February, Modi had asked Khan “to keep his word as a Pathan and fight poverty and illiteracy together with India instead of fighting each other.” In reply, Imran Khan sought to reiterate Pakistan’s desire to see stability in the region, saying Modi should “give peace a chance” Dawn 2019b).

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi “strongly rejected Indian claim of targeting an alleged terrorist camp near Balakot as well as the claim of heavy casualties.” He said: “This action has been done for domestic consumption being in election environment, putting regional peace and stability at grave risk.  The claimed area of strike is open for the world to see the facts on ground. For this domestic and international media is being taken to the impact site. Forum concluded that India has committed uncalled for aggression to which Pakistan shall respond at the time and place of its choosing” (Dawn 2019a). Referring to the Indian claims that “350 terrorists have been killed and a hideout has been destroyed,” Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the Director General (DG) of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), said that “even if they had killed 10, what about their bodies, their funerals, their blood..the spot is open for anybody and everybody: for ambassadors, defence attaches, UN military observer group in Pakistan” (Dawn 2019c).

26 February air strikes were reported to be the first launched across the LoC (line of control) since the India-Pakistan war of 1971. This was not even explored during the 1999 Kargil war. The ‘surgical strikes’ which India had undertaken in 2016 in response to the attacks in Uri also did not have this dimension. The emerging situation is likely to vitiate the regional peace and stability in the days to come. India had already declared its decision to withdraw the MFN status granted to Pakistan and for a strict compliance of the Indus Water Treaty with no more concessions of allowing water from the three eastern rivers.

The immediate diplomat fallout of the airstrikes would be visible in India’s difficulties in making its presence felt in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) meeting of Foreign Ministers scheduled to be held in Abu Dhabi on 1-2 March. Though India has been invited as the ‘Guest of Honour’ at the OIC meeting of Foreign Ministers, it remains to be seen if India’s presence would bring in a positive response from the organizations’ members (India, Ministry of External Affairs 2019a). Already, at the request of Pakistan, an OIC conflict group emergency meeting was convened in Jeddah. Pakistan’s Foreign Minister said he had already spoken to his UAE counterpart and “expressed reservations” about invitation to India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to attend the OIC meeting (Dawn 2019a). Responding to the report that India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj had been invited to address the Inaugural Plenary of the 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of the OIC, he said: “Today, the situation has changed. Aggression has been done against a founding member of the OIC, the Muslims in India are in fear, and Kashmiris are being targeted (Dawn 2019a).

Hours after the airstrikes, the OIC “condemned” the India action “against an OIC founding member state.” It “urged India and Pakistan to exercise restraint and avoid any steps that would endanger peace and security in the region.” It called upon both countries “to act responsibly and encouraged them to seek peaceful solution to current crisis without resort to use of force.” It also called on them to embrace dialogue and work towards de-escalation of current situation as a matter of priority (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2019a). Meanwhile, OIC Contact Group Meeting on Jammu and Kashmir called for immediate de-escalation in the region. The OIC top officials “strongly condemned the recent wave of repression, brutal killing of innocent Kashmiri civilians by the Indian occupied forces, frequent incidents of rape especially of minor girls.” They also “reiterated OIC’s principled position on supporting the people of Jammu and Kashmir in achieving their legitimate rights, including the right of self-determination.” The Contact Group called on the OIC and the UN Secretaries General to use their good offices to put an end to the dangerous escalation by India, which threatens regional peace and security (Organisation of Islamic Cooperation 2019n). The OIC statements give an indication that Pakistan will make an all-out attack on India at the meeting to be held on 1-2 March.

The responses of the US and China are equally important. The US President Donald Trump sounded alarm on the “very dangerous situation” between India and Pakistan saying that “we would like to see it stop,” adding that the United States was seeking talks with Pakistan (The Quint 2019). China said that both India and Pakistan should not allow the situation to be escalated and called for restraint in the interest of peace and stability in the region. India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is now on her way to China to attend a meeting of foreign ministers of Russia, India and China. Her visit holds significance in the background of growing tension between India and Pakistan after the airstrikes carried out in Pakistan. Swaraj is expected to hold talks with her Chinese and Russian counterparts on the sidelines of the meeting in which the issue of Pakistan backed terrorism and listing of Azhar by the UN’s 1267 committee might come up.

Even as diplomatic follow-up measures are in place, from both Indian and Pakistan sides, the war hysteria has been in high pitch among sections of the official apparatus, media, think tanks, strategic specialists etc. The people living on the borders of India and Pakistan are under a panic situation, fearing further strikes and retaliation from both sides. Though the use of nukes is entirely ruled out in an India-Pakistan conflict scenario, notwithstanding substantial stocks in their arsenal with sophisticated delivery systems, verbal attacks and counter-attacks are already in place. This tends to vitiate the channels of diplomatic interfaces on all fronts, not only at the bilateral level, but even at the international fora. Though India and Pakistan fought five wars in the past (1947-48, twice in 1965, 1971 and 1999), and signed three major peace pacts (1966, 1972 and 1999), they have not been able to sort out the major differences in respect of Kashmir. Even the UN had eventually declared its inability to tackle it after a series of initiatives and talks. Apparently, the hawks in both countries do not entertain any notions of peace and stability even after seven decades of critical relationship. This is more perceptible in the case of Pakistan which has been under military rule for more than half of its entire political life. The agony of this enduring dilemma is for the people, living on the borders of the two countries, to put up with.

 

References

Dawn (2019a): “Pakistan will respond to uncalled-for Indian aggression at time, place of its choosing: NSC,” 26 February, available at  https://www.dawn.com/news/1466145/pakistan-will-respond-to-uncalled-for-indian-aggression-at-time-place-of-its-choosing-nsc

Dawn (2019b): “Give peace a chance’: Prime Minister Khan responds to Modi” 24 February, available at  https://www.dawn.com/news/1465778/give-peace-a-chance-prime-minister-khan-responds-to-modi

Dawn (2019c): “’Time for India to wait for our response’: ISPR DG debunks New Delhi’s claims on LoC violation,” 26 February, available at https://www.dawn.com/news/1466161/time-for-india-to-wait-for-our-response-ispr-dg-debunks-new-delhis-claims-on-loc-violation

India, Ministry of External Affairs (2019a): “EAM to attend 46th Session of the Council of Foreign Ministers of Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as ‘Guest of Honour’ to attend the Inaugural Plenary,” 23 February 2019, available at https://www.mea.gov.in/press-releases.htm?dtl/31081/EAM_to_attend_46th_Session_of_the_Council_of_Foreign_Ministers_of_Organisation_of_Islamic_Cooperation_as_Guest_of_Honour_to_attend_the_Inaugural_Plena

India, Ministry of External Affairs (2019b): “Statement by Foreign Secretary on 26 February 2019 on the Strike on JeM training camp at Balakot, February 26, 2019,” https://www.mea.gov.in/media-briefings.htm?dtl/31090/Statement_by_Foreign_Secretary_on_26_February_2019_on_the_Strike_on_JeM_training_camp_at_Balakot

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2019a): “The OIC Condemns India’s Violation of the Line of Control with Pakistan, 26 February, https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=20623&t_ref=11717&lan=en

Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (2019b):”OIC Contact Group Meeting on Jammu and Kashmir Calls for Immediate De-escalation in the Region,” 26 February, https://www.oic-oci.org/topic/?t_id=20622&t_ref=11716&lan=en

Seethi, K.M. (1999):  “A Tragedy of Betrayals: Questions Beyond the LoC in Kashmir,” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol.34, No.37, September 11.

The Quint (2019): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVm7QAoruEA

This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy.  The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at kmseethimgu@gmail.com

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